Mozambicans pick president in test for long-ruling Frelimo
MAPUTO - Mozambique heads to the polls Wednesday in a tough test for Frelimo, the party that has ruled the resource-rich country since independence in 1975.
Frelimo, which has glided to victory in four previous presidential elections, now faces growing discontent, with many Mozambicans calling for change and seen to be swinging towards the opposition.
Voter surveys cannot be published in Mozambique, but judging from the turnout at some campaign rallies, Frelimo could be in for a shock.
Its glitzy final rally in its southern fiefdom of Maputo failed to attract a capacity crowd.
Analysts say that while Frelimo is expected to win the election, the opposition is likely to make significant inroads, reducing the ruling party's overwhelming majority of 75 percent garnered in the last vote.
The opposition ballots are likely to be split between the former rebel Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) and its breakaway Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM).
The desire for change has been driven by a wealth gap that persists despite huge mineral resources, with fast economic growth sidestepping the bulk of a population that is among the world's poorest.
Renamo, which has lost all elections since the end of the country's 15-year civil war in 1992, has made a comeback, trying to spruce up its image after emerging from a low-level insurgency waged in the centre of the country just weeks ahead of the election.
"The recent (September 5) peace agreement is an opportunity for Renamo," said Nelson Alusala, a researcher with the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies.
"Mozambicans may be attracted to Renamo for the simple reason of wanting change," he said.
At the same time the fledgling MDM, led by the mayor of the second largest city of Beira, is gaining popularity.
Formed five years ago, the MDM gained 38 percent of the urban vote in last December's municipal elections.
Polls open at 0500 GMT with 27 parties and two coalitions competing for the favour of 10.9 million registered voters in the presidential race, plus polls for national and provincial assemblies.
Boats and helicopters were used to transport ballot boxes to remote areas of the vast country, where most people still live off subsistence farming.
The presidential race pits Frelimo's Filipe Nyusi, the former defence minister who is making his first bid for the country's top job, against Renamo's veteran Afonso Dhlakama and MDM founder Daviz Simango.
If none of the three garners more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held within 30 days after official final results.
In the parliamentary race, Frelimo is seeking to defend its 191 seats in Mozambique's 250-seat assembly.
The government amended election laws earlier this year as part of peace negotiations with Renamo, which demanded that the opposition be given greater control over the electoral process in bid to improve transparency.
Parties have the right to nominate staff and observers at polling stations and have more members sitting on the electoral commission.